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Urban Compass Calgary

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Unmuzzle workers on wages

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Get students to interview hourly wage earners.

This was a suggestion from a presenter at the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at the University of Arizona in Phoenix.

I was there to learn how to introduce more business content into the university journalism curriculum.

We went through balance sheets and SEC filings of public companies.

I also latched on to an assignment to ease students into business reporting: Interview an hourly worker. Then move into the company's financials.

There was a catch. My students said hourly workers they approached in Calgary were often forbidden from talking about wages.

I was stunned.

It's been a while since I scooped ice cream or cleaned rooms. After all, an Alberta appeal judge decided U of C students had a right to criticize a professor on Facebook. It upheld the Canadian charter right to free speech. Even Holocaust deniers can say their piece.

Yet, hourly workers could not discuss their wages?

"This is outrageous and sleazy in my opinion, but sadly, not unlawful," writes York law professor David Doorey on his blog.

So it's back to those complicated SEC filings, required by Canadian companies who do business in the United States.

Let's take Tim Hortons, for instance. It sells 77 per cent of the coffee in this nation. My students love the pricing and coffee.

Some (not all) franchises forbid employees from discussing wages, especially those who might want to work for another franchise owner.

Yet, Tim Hortons has to disclose executive salary information because it does business in the United States. We learn that the CEO was underpaid, so he got a $100,000 raise to $750,000, along with millions in incentives; the former CEO got a $5.7-million buyout and has agreed to "consult" for a few years at $175,000.

Meanwhile, one Tims franchisee brags it pays at least minimum wage. Yet "there comes a time when there has to be limits set for a position." It's $11.60 per hour for counter staff. The same franchisee lists "gossiping" as grounds for termination.

In the end, the company goals are to control costs and "create wealth for all."

Let's talk about that. I have no problem with employers setting wages or earning high profits.

But to muzzle those who make it happen should be not only sleazy but also illegal.

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